Casper area contractors and politicians all but promised to pull their support for a $10 million business incubator project at a standing-room-only meeting at Casper College on Wednesday morning because local contractors have expressed outrage at the process by which the construction manager for the project is being chosen.
The incubator has been planned for three years, with contributions and input from local governments, economic development boards and a federal agency that has kicked $2 million into the project.
A large and diverse cross section of Casper's power structure -- Natrona County commissioners, legislators, Casper city council members, local businessmen and contractors -- piled into the Strausner Student Center to voice displeasure with the Casper Area Economic Development Alliance and its decision to choose three out-of-state companies as the "most qualified" to serve as a construction manager for its business incubator project.
Federal strings attached to the $2 million contribution prevent CAEDA from giving any contractors preferential treatment, though that didn't stop the 150 attendees from lashing out at CAEDA President and CEO Robert Barnes.
"The expectation is that it's the 'Casper Area Economic Development.' We don't give a damn about the feds," said Pat Sweeney, owner of the downtown Wonder Bar. "This is the local community."
Moments after saying that Wyoming contractors "never" want preferential treatment, he told Barnes to "do the right thing" and "use Wyoming contractors for 100 percent of the project."
The purpose of the incubator is to "take Wyoming entrepreneurs out of their bedrooms, out of their basements, out of their closets and into a professional work environment where they can grow their company," Barnes said.
Incubators lease space to young business and put them in contact with professional services, increasing their survival rate, according to Barnes.
Barnes, who speaks fast and with confidence, was often combative and defensive while sometimes pointing at the people he was speaking to throughout Wednesday's meeting.
"One of the first things people told me was 'you better follow the rules.' We had enough people skew the rules, go around the back, shortcutting ... and you know what we're doing? We're following the rules. And if the big thing is you took federal money to compete on a process all the way through, it's square, you can look at it. Your expectation is we do things up front," Barnes said to Sweeney. "It has to do with competition and the free market. We need that $2 million because that was our commitment."
Before Sweeney spoke, David Robatcek, a member of the Amoco Reuse Agreement Joint Powers Board and a local business owner, said it "breaks his heart" to see out-of-state markings on vehicles at construction sites but expressed disappointment with contractors who disrupted a board meeting last week.
"Pitchforks and torches were the only things missing," he said.
He also called Casper the most "unfriendly business place" he's seen.
"How many of you can't pay your bills," Robatcek asked.
Nobody raised their hand.
"None of you. You were here not out of need but because you wanted more. I've been in this town trying to do business for 13 years as an independent business," he said. "I'm still an outsider after 13 years and I can't pay my bills and it's very embarrassing to me. You don't want what you need, you want more than what you need."
"Embrace competition," he continued. "There are some that would rather destroy a man's life than compete with him and that's the ultimate cowardice."
He left immediately after his brief speech.
The long term benefits of the project that Barnes cited, despite an initial contract going to an out-of-state contractor, seemed to fall on the deaf ears of irritated and disappointed businessmen who found fault with "Casper Area" economic development money going to an out of state company.
Many people that spoke bemoaned the acceptance of federal money for the project and the rules that don't allow CAEDA to choose a Wyoming company because they're from Wyoming, seemingly more content to scale back the project than let a portion of the construction dollars be given to an out-of-state firm.
When Lee Arkaravitis said "kill the whole project," much of the audience clapped.
Matt Keating, a Natrona County commissioner, said the county supported fellow commissioner Ed Opella's proposal at an Amoco Joint Powers Board meeting to yank $1.5 million that board has tied to the project and said he would work to get the Economic Development Joint Powers board to pull their $1.5 million contribution as well.
The process CAEDA used requires hiring a construction manager before all the building plans are drawn, obtaining a "guaranteed maximum price" and then putting together pieces of the project that any qualified contractor can bid on. Contractors took issue with this process.
Though the company that will manage construction hasn't yet been chosen from the three finalists, whichever is awarded the contract will then have to put between $7 million and $8 million of construction out to bid. The construction manager helps draw plans and estimate costs. The company among three finalists who submits the lowest guaranteed price will be awarded the management position later this month.
The construction manager will then have to compete against bidders for portions of the work. Bids will be open in a public setting so the management company can't cherry pick which portions it wants to perform while doling out unfavorable portions to subcontractors.
This differs from the "hard bid" process used by the city of Casper and other local governments who first draw construction plans and then give contractors an opportunity to submit bids, with the lowest bidder typically being awarded the contract.
Contractors have been complaining to elected officials and media outlets for more than a week about the process that cut Wyoming contractors out of the opportunity to serve as the project manager. Many of them spoke at the meeting.
Kent Hambrick, part of the CAEDA selection committee that narrowed down 10 interested contractors to three finalists for the management job, and a former member of the Amoco Reuse Agreement Joint Powers Board that has pitched in $1.5 million for the project, said the board has known from "day one" that CAEDA would use the manager process instead of the hard bid process.
The Star-Tribune also reported the use of a "construction manager" in November.
Reach city reporter Pete Nickeas at email@example.com or (307) 266-0639. Read more about Casper politics and government at http://tribtown.trib.com/redtape